JDB: Eco-terrorists are trying to derail the American president's new energy policy, fearing that by opening the Arctic Wildlife Refuge to oil exploration as a way of getting us off imported oil, too much damage will be caused. As the story develops, the true force behind the environmentalists is a...my cat's screaming...is a Middle Eastern oil sheikh who sees the president's energy policy as destroying his country, so he's hired a terrorist broker to help him in his aims. In turn, this terrorist hires the environmentalists; the environmentalists aren't aware that they are actually being used.
bn: Enter Philip Mercer.
JDB: Enter Philip Mercer. Mercer is in Alaska, working on the testing of a new tunnel drilling machine, which will facilitate the building of a new Trans-Alaska Pipeline, again, as a part of the opening of the Arctic Wildlife Refuge. Shortly after the test, Mercer goes fishing with the inventor of the machine, and they discover a burned-out fishing boat. It's the mystery behind the fishing boat that launches Mercer into the middle of this mess.
bn: Tell us about Philip Mercer.
JDB: He's an engineer and geological consultant; some say he's the best in the world at what he does. He has a Ph.D. in geology, is a graduate of the Colorado School of Mines; he's got years of experience, both in the field and in laboratory work, and has been all over the world prospecting for minerals. One friend referred to him as the "Rock Jock." His job has made him extremely wealthy; it allows him to travel constantly, which he does like, though he does love his native Washington, D.C., which is now his home.
bn: Tell us about what he did before you began to chronicle his adventures in Vulcan's Forge .
JDB: He was involved in the Gulf War, prior to the U.S. troops going in for Operation Desert Storm. The United States wasn't sure if Saddam Hussein had nuclear weapons. They knew he hadn't gotten uranium through external sources, but they weren't sure if he'd been able to mine it himself. So, through a selection process from the CIA and the Delta Force, Mercer was hired by the military as a geologic consultant to go in with a commando team to the only location in Iraq that could possibly have been a uranium mine to see if Hussein had in fact come up with his own source of uranium. Shortly after their extraction, Mercer reported to the military that no, the Iraqis don't have uranium, they can't have nukes. An hour later the U.S. bombs started dropping.
bn: Do you have any plans to chronicle that adventure in a novel?
JDB: I've given it some thought, but it's one of those things that I'm not comfortable enough to do just yet, but I would like to do a book about Mercer's background that leads up to his first book, Vulcan's Forge . It'd talk about some of his childhood, through some of his schooling, and then climaxing with what happens in Iraq. This is one of those books down the road. I think if I ever come into a real writer's block, I'll use it [laughs].
bn: Do you and Philip Mercer have anything in common?
JDB: We both drink too much [laughs]. Ironically, geology was my worst subject in college, or one of my worst, I should say.
bn: Now that's ironic, because when reading your novels, it certainly seems as if you have a tremendous grasp on the subject.
JDB: It's something that I got interested in afterward. But when I was a kid in social studies class, they had a book about jobs people have in farming and everything else, and they had a picture of a coal mine and the machines that are used inside coal mines, and I said, "This is the neatest thing in the world." Ever since then I found mining fascinating. The idea of working a thousand feet underground with umpteen billion tons of rock over your head, just going around as if it's a normal job, you know, thinking nothing of it. The ability to put that kind of pressure out of your mind, there's something that just fascinates the hell out of me about that. To me, miners have the same kind of mindset as the guys that wash windows on skyscrapers. It's just a job. You're a thousand feet off Fifth Avenue and you're just hanging out.
bn: Have you ever been in an actual mine?
JDB: I've actually been in a couple of 'em. There's a nice one near New York, the Lackawanna coal mine in Pennsylvania, near Wilkes-Barre. I've been in one out west too when I was really young. Other than that, no, I really haven't. I was hoping to go to South Africa two years ago and actually go into a mine, but at the time, South Africa just wasn't safe for travel, so I didn't go. But at some point, whenever I have time, I'd like to go to a few around here. And now that I can say "You know, I'm an author," I get a little cachet to get into these places [laughs].
bn: As you mentioned, the mindset it must take to go into a mine, with that much rock over your head -- it's downright chilling. How fragile are mines these days?
JDB: It's not as bad as it used to be, but they still do collapse -- and the idea that it can happen at any moment. I still think, even today, about 300 men every year die in South African diamond mining and gold mining. It's mostly from explosions though -- from mishandled explosives or methane gas.
bn: Do they still walk in with the canary?
JDB: Well, it's a little better than that [laughs]. Same principle though.
bn: So, when Mercer needs to concentrate, he pulls out a steel slab of railroad track and he begins to polish it. Where did this idea come from?
JDB: During World War II, Winston Churchill would build brick walls behind No. 10 Downing Street in a garden back there. He'd build up the wall and, when he was done, an assistant would take the wall apart. The next day he really needed to do some heavy concentrating, he'd do the same thing. Just rebuild the wall. So I was thinking, it's an interesting trick that Churchill had. What could Mercer do like that? I've got a lot of brass in my apartment, so one of the things that I do to relax is polish that for a while. Then I came up with the idea of the railroad track -- it's just a very mechanical, repetitive process. It involves no thinking whatsoever. It frees your mind up. When doing it, you're in the zone.
bn: That's a cool quirk. So, when did you decide you wanted to be a thriller writer?
JDB: I started my first thriller when I was 17 years old -- my senior year of high school. I went to a private school, and the library they had at the school had stuff mostly for just writing term papers. In town, the only books you could find were at the grocery store, and they were either romance novels or thrillers. I read quite a bit at the time, and it got to the point where there was nothing out that I hadn't already read, so I tauntingly said, "You know, I could do this." That's how I started my first one. I got about 650 pages into it, even had a few people look at it, who then told me kindly that I had ability, but this wasn't the book to be published. It was just out of college that I started writing Vulcan's Forge .
bn: Which, of course, was the first novel that you did have published.
JDB: Available at barnesandnoble.com [laughs]
bn: Click right here to learn more. So, talk about the title: Charon's Landing. What is its significance?
JDB: Well, the idea behind Vulcan's Forge is a volcano. The word "volcano" comes from Vulcan, who was the armorer of the gods. I thought "Forge" was a good word to go along with that -- it really made sense for the concept of the book. With the new book, I wanted to pick something that continued the tradition of mythological reference. So for this book, I had to come up with something that had a connection with mythology, and something to do with death, so I thought that the perfect character was Charon, who was the ferryman who carried the souls of the dead across the river Styx. And of course, Charon's Landing was where he docked the boat, which would be Hell. Actually, it's one of the better titles I think I've ever come up with.
bn: Not bad at all, I'd say. Who influenced you most as a writer?
JDB: Most, I'd have to say Clive Cussler. Then probably David Morrell. And then, Gerald Browne. Browne, if you haven't read him, does a lot of name dropping and a lot of sophisticated references that I think are really neat. His characterization is brilliant; you really know the characters well. The hardest thing with thriller writing: It's usually plot driven, so the characters get sacrificed. I try not to do that.
bn: You mentioned Cussler. Did you model Philip Mercer after Dirk Pitt in any ways?
JDB: Um, I guess I'd agree with that. I think, as every successive generation of thriller writer comes along, you keep borrowing from the people who came before you. A lot of Pitt came from Ian Fleming's James Bond. And really, when you get down to it, every thriller writer and every thriller hero is Odysseus, from The Odyssey . So really, we all have to doff our hat to Homer more than anyone else. He's the number one influence, at least in my opinion.
bn: Describe your writing process.
JDB: Everything to me is framed almost as if I'm watching a movie. All I really have to do is, with words, describe what I'm seeing. It's tough watching the action scenes in my mind and being able to keep up with the typewriter. I don't really know how to type -- I'm a two-finger typist.
bn: You're not alone in that regard. Charon's Landing brings up an interesting issue regarding America's dependency on oil. As the American president does in your novel, do you see an American president actually attempting to sever America's dependency on oil? And if this ever does take place, how do you think the mega-oil companies will respond?
JDB: Until there is a viable alternative to fuel, it'll never happen. Oil is too vital for everything in our lives. And I think when the time does come, the Seven Sisters -- the seven big oil companies, I think it's down to five or six now -- chances are, they'll be in the forefront of whatever new energy technology comes. They have the research scientists and the technological know-how to know what the world needs for fuel. I think they will resist for a while, as long as they possibly can, but when the time comes, they'll be there ready to pick up the reins.
bn: The big debate in your novel deals with the destruction of a very fragile Alaskan ecosystem for the overall benefit of the rest of the country. How would you side if this debate were real?
JDB: I would see myself siding with opening up the refuge and using that oil as a stopgap, until alternative sources of energy come along. I think it's a very small price to pay, if we can finally weed ourselves off fossil fuel. Most of the destruction comes from generating plants, automobiles, and things like that; if we can clean that up, I think losing the refuge would be a small price to pay. I don't know how the rest of the country would go with that. It's a very emotional debate. There are a lot of people who feel that any amount of destruction is too much. Mercer brings this up in the book, that no issue is a two-sided coin: There's always that thin edge of compromise, and that's the hardest thing to deal with.
bn: While researching for this novel, did you come across any information regarding the current state of the Bligh Reef, the area of land that was destroyed by the Exxon Valdez disaster?
JDB: There's been a lot of stuff on it since I finished this book, because of the recent ten-year anniversary of the accident. As I understand, there are some out there who say the region is still destroyed, but I think the consensus is that it has actually come back fairly quickly and fairly well. What happened there was a tragic mistake, and I'd hate to think that it'll happen again, but anytime you have a machine with more than two moving parts, there could be a potential problem. And anytime you have humans involved, there's always the possibilty of error. A lot has been done by the company that runs the terminal in Alaska to make sure that if there is an accident again, containment will be a lot quicker.
bn: In the book, you discuss these tag-along boats.
JDB: Yeah, ERV's -- Emergency Response Vehicles. These are ships that trail all the tankers coming out of the terminal until they are basically in the open ocean. That way, in case something does happen, they can immediately contain the spill.
I was in Alaska when the idea for the book came to me, so it was kind of like the cart leading the donkey. I spent a month up there, put 3,600 miles on a rental car, flew up to Point Barrow to actually go swimming in the Arctic Ocean, just to say I've done it. I did spend some time in Valdez, saw the terminal, and spent some time in the town talking to people. Some of the people believe it has been cleaned up, although there are those who feel that it hasn't been.
bn: How'd you learn your way around an oil supertanker so well?
JDB: There are several books I read about them. One's called Supership; another is called Superwreck , about the Amoco Cadiz that crashed off the coast of France. These books gave me the general idea of what I'd need to do. I also had the opportunity to meet a British supertanker captain when I was on vacation down in Florida -- it was one of those chance meetings, it was perfect -- just as I was editing the final scenes of the book. With his guidance, I made it a lot more realistic.
bn: Your book jacket claims that you once insulted Alfredo Cristiani, the then-president of El Salvador, in the presence of Jack Kemp. What's that all about?
JDB: When I was in college in Washington, D.C., I had the chance to go sneak into a number of receptions held on Capitol Hill, 'cause it's a good way to get free booze. At this particular one, Cristiani was the guest of honor. He had gone to Georgetown for graduate school, so he and I were talking about Georgetown bars. I had a few too many Scotches, and as the evening was ending -- Jack Kemp was standing next to us and seemed very eager to get Cristiani to some other event -- so I put out my hand and I said, "Well Mr. Cristiani, it was your pleasure meeting me." There was about a four-second pause, then Cristiani burst out laughing. I literally thought Jack Kemp was going to die right there [laughs]. To this day I don't dare go to El Salvador, just in case.
bn: Tell us about your next project.
JDB: The next one is called Medusa's Glance. Medusa is the code-name for a ground-penetrating radar system on a satellite that was designed as the eyes for President Reagan's Star Wars defense system. It was supposed to be able to look into missile silos to see exactly which ones had rockets ready to go. Of course, the Russians had thousands of silos that were empty, and at night they'd switch rockets back and forth like three-card shuffle. Well, in my story, the day the satellite is launched it also crashes, but not before the cameras inside are turned on. As the satellite goes down, it takes pictures of the northeast African desert. There, buried under the sands in the country of Eritrea, they discovered a geologic feature called the Kimberlite Pipe, which is the formation where all diamonds come from. The story picks up when Philip Mercer is hired by the State Department to go see if the Kimberlite Pipe is there, and if there are diamonds present. The State Department would like to show the government of Ertitrea that, hey, you no longer have to be one of the poorest nations on Earth, you have this massive wealth here. But, unknown to Mercer, there are several other groups extremely interested in this. Of course, it's up to him to prove one way or another whether the diamonds are there, or if there is something else buried there.
bn: So, did your college education pay off?
JDB: Let's see, if my father doesn't see this interview, how do I say this...No! If my father does see this, then yes, it paid for itself 100 times over [laughs]. Actually, I think just living in Washington, D.C. paid off my college education -- the experience of living there...it's such a fabulous city.
bn: To close, tell us about the letter you recently received from Clive Cussler.
JDB: I had a friend who knew Cussler who sent him the manuscript for Charon's Landing to see if he would consider endorsing it. Didn't hear anything for quite a few weeks, and finally, I got the letter with his name on the return address. I was sheet-white when I got the letter, had no idea what he was going to say. I mean, I was positive I'd open the letter up and the first words would be "You suck" or "You are talentless." Finally, I opened it up. The first line went something like, "Have read Charon's Landing , you're one helluva writer." It was the same feeling I had when I was first told I was being published. I've always admired Cussler's work. I consider him, in the action/thriller genre, the master, and to have a peer of that caliber acknowledge your work and actually endorse it, it was indescribable, it really was.
bn: Jack, thank you so much for taking the time out to speak with us today.
JDB: Thank you, it was fun.